Meet Iran’s New Foreign Minister: Qassem Suleimani’s ‘Soldier’
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian is a staunch backer of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance.”
“[Hossein] Amir-Abdollahian is another Qassem Suleimani in the field of diplomacy.”
“[Hossein] Amir-Abdollahian is another Qassem Suleimani in the field of diplomacy.”
That’s how one Iranian lawmaker recently described Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s nominee for foreign minister. Like Suleimani, the powerful commander of Iran’s Quds Force who was assassinated in a U.S. drone strike in January 2020, Amir-Abdollahian is well known for his support of the Iran-backed “Axis of Resistance” in the Middle East—the array of political and military groups, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, Yemen’s Houthis, and others that Iran supports across the region.
The country’s conservative-led parliament approved Amir-Abdollahian’s appointment 270 votes to 10 votes. Members had demanded the Ministry of Foreign Affairs support the late Suleimani’s goals and missions during their review of Amir-Abdollahian’s credentials, and the high vote in parliament shows they trust him in this regard.
Indeed, the 57-year-old diplomat, who previously served as speaker of parliament for international affairs and deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, among other posts, once referred to himself as Suleimani’s “soldier.” He said every time he went to a country as a diplomatic and negotiation envoy, he would first consult with Suleimani to get necessary guidance.
The closeness in Amir-Abdollahian’s and Suleimani’s views means the former is likely to attach great importance to Iran’s military policy in the Middle East during his tenure. On his first official bilateral visit as Iran’s foreign minister, he traveled to Syria and met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reaffirm Iran’s support for his regime. Since 2011, with the start of the Syrian civil war, Iran has provided military and civilian support to Assad.
Amir-Abdollahian was born in Damghan, Iran, 200 miles north of Tehran, but his family moved to the capital when he was six after his father passed away. They settled in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, on 17 Shahrivar Street to the south of Mehrabad International Airport. He describes himself as “from the south”—a term usually reserved for families who live in the poor southern outskirts of Tehran and have a relatively low level of welfare and livelihood.
Describing the level of poverty and deprivation in the area where he lived, he has said there was no hospital or even a small clinic where he grew up, and later, with the help of a group of locals and his friends, they established a charity-run clinic there.
Amir-Abdollahian volunteered to serve in the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 and says that experience is what led him to work at the foreign ministry’s Iraq desk in 1990 and 1991. He received his bachelor’s degree in international relations from the School of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1991, and went on to receive his master’s and doctoral degrees in international relations from the University of Tehran. He was appointed undersecretary of Iran’s embassy to Iraq in 1997.
Amir-Abdollahian has said from the very beginning of his career, he worked closely with Suleimani. He was present for the direct 2007 negotiations with the Americans in Iraq. The Iranian team was under Suleimani’s supervision during those talks and negotiated with CIA and U.S. Defense Department officials.
That his work frequently brought him into close contact with Suleimani is no surprise. Suleimani’s Quds Force, the foreign branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has traditionally been in charge of Iran’s policies and diplomacy in the Middle East, from Palestine to Iraq to Yemen, and has played an instrumental role in providing military and political support to militant movements throughout the region.
In 2011, due to Amir-Abdollahian’s good relationship with the Quds Force and Suleimani, then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed Amir-Abdollahian as deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, where most activities of the Quds Force took place. When Mohammad Javad Zarif became foreign minister in 2013, Amir-Abdollahian was the only deputy foreign minister from the Ahmadinejad era to keep his post, which he held for three more years.
But in 2016, he was abruptly dismissed. Some reports suggest he did not match Zarif’s approach and the two were not on the same page regarding regional issues. Asked about his ouster, Amir-Abdollahian said Zarif was pursuing new policies in the region after the nuclear talks concluded. Yet hard-line lawmaker Javad Karimi Qudusi quoted Zarif’s undersecretary, Morteza Sarmadi, telling Amir-Abdollahian: “We want to send a message to the West that our policies in the Middle East have changed, and the way to send this message is to remove you from your post.”
Amir-Abdollahian’s ouster was met with sharp criticism from conservatives and conservative-friendly media outlets. Some suggested he’d been fired to appease Arab countries and then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who saw Amir-Abdollahian as one of the main obstacles to then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s peace and diplomacy efforts toward the United States and major Arab countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia.
When conservatives in parliament summoned Zarif for an explanation, he denied that accusation, stating: “It is an insult to the government to claim that we are changing our officials due to the concerns of foreigners. These claims have no basis. The transfer of people from one department to another in the foreign ministry is an obvious fact.”
Yet Zarif’s decision to fire Amir-Abdollahian may have also had to do with his own frustrations with Suleimani—and thus with Amir-Abdollahian by proxy.
In recently leaked audio of an interview that was only meant to be published long after he had left office, Zarif accused Suleimani of having constantly undermined his diplomatic efforts and complained that despite being foreign minister, he had a limited role in setting Iran’s regional policies. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, he said, the battlefield or “field”—meaning the Quds Force’s military and influence operations in the Middle East—always came first ahead of the “diplomatic field.”
In this context, then, Zarif’s firing of Amir-Abdollahian could be seen as an attempt to weaken the Quds Force’s influence in the foreign ministry and claw back some authority over foreign policy in the Middle East.
And judging by Amir-Abdollahian’s reaction to Zarif’s remarks, he may have had a point.
Amir-Abdollahian argued that Suleimani’s and the Quds Force’s actions in the Middle East have brought security to Iran and the region. He said diplomacy has always relied on the “field,” and if the Americans agreed to negotiate with Iran on various occasions over the past decade regarding the nuclear program and other issues, it had been because of Iran’s capabilities on the ground and its influence in the Middle East.
Now that he’s foreign minister, Amir-Abdollahian will be able to more seamlessly integrate the Quds Force’s strategy into the nation’s foreign-policy approach. He even told lawmakers he would continue Suleimani’s path in foreign policy.
Amir-Abdollahian has been clear about what he wants to achieve as foreign minister. “We in the Middle East are looking to consolidate the achievements of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ field,” he said during his parliamentary review for the job. “We are proud to support our allies and the ‘Axis of Resistance.’”
That approach seems to be in line with Raisi’s own foreign-policy goals. At Raisi’s inauguration ceremony, representatives of Iranian-backed proxies—such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and al-Hashd al-Shaabi—were seated at the front; the EU foreign-policy representative was seated behind them. Amir-Abdollahian, who was the international director of parliament at the time, was responsible for the formalities of the international guests and their seating arrangements at the ceremony.
Amir-Abdollahian also supports the “Look to the East” policy emphasized by Raisi, which aims to expand Iran’s relations with China and Russia, and called it the most important axis of the new government’s foreign policy. He described the signing of the 25-year cooperation agreement between Iran and China as “historic” and said he had played a role in drafting the document.
On the nuclear deal, Amir-Abdollahian does not have much experience as he was not present in the talks. But he believes “diplomacy only understands the language of force,” and to get the United States to lift sanctions on Iran, the country must increase its leverage in negotiations by advancing its nuclear program.
He supported legislation under which Iran drastically reduced its nuclear commitments and seriously limited International Atomic Energy Agency access to its nuclear program—legislation that Rouhani called harmful to Iran and one of the most important barriers to reaching an agreement with the West to lift economic sanctions.
During his tenure, Zarif turned the foreign ministry into the most important government ministry in the past eight years, bringing in a generation of Iranian diplomats who negotiated the nuclear deal, the most important diplomatic agreement in Iran’s modern history in the last 40 years. That’s the foreign ministry Amir-Abdollahian has inherited, and he has a difficult job to do as he will inevitably be compared to Zarif.
However, Amir-Abdollahian enjoys privileges that pave the way for him in diplomacy. The IRGC’s and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s trust in him give him more credibility than Zarif had. All of this means his tenure could see a significant expansion of the foreign ministry’s role in shaping Iran’s Middle East policy.
Saheb Sadeghi is a columnist and foreign-policy analyst on Iran and the Middle East. Twitter: @sahebsadeghi
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